Educating Leaders in a Culture of Change: Harnessing the Power of Community Partnerships

Elizabeth Gibbons Holtzman
Andrew Snyder

Al Rogers, education and technology pioneer, posits the following: "In times of profound change, the learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists" (as cited in Buffum , Mattos & Weber, 2009, p.73). As graduate school faculty committed to produce leaders in the education field, we grapple with training within a shifting landscape. We attempt to educate our students with an eye to the future, aware of the newest trends, bolstered by the latest research. We pride ourselves on creating change agents.

One particular challenge in what we aspire to is the match between college classrooms and field placements. The question arises: are we teaching what is being modeled, practiced and supported in site-based experiences? When our students' learning experiences in our classrooms are in conflict with what they see in their site-based experiences, this contributes to the gap between theory and "reality." This gap frequently leads to dissonance and frustration in the graduate student if there is too large a disconnect between the graduate classroom and the on-site school practice.

Ongoing and intensive college-community collaboration is one way to address this problem consistent with the education trends of Professional Learning Communities and Response to Intervention. Professional Learning Communities describe a school culture where school professionals (including teachers and administrators) seek to learn and share their learning with each other on an on-going basis. Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) are based on three "big ideas" which include a focus on learning, a collaborative culture and a focus on results (Dufour, 2005). Characteristics often associated with PLCs include: supportive and shared leadership, collective creativity, shared values and vision, supportive conditions, and shared personal practice (Hord, 1997). Evidence of PLC's in a school building include collaborative teams that work together to achieve common goals through ongoing inquiry, innovation and experimentation in which success is measured through results (R. Dufour, R. Dufour, Eaker & Karhanek, 2004).

Response to Intervention (RTI) is a process for making decisions about all student needs based on data. Essential components of RTI include high quality evidence-based instruction for all students, ongoing student assessment (including universal screening and progress monitoring) and tiered instruction. RTI is a system-wide framework that often requires a considerable paradigm shift for successful implementation (Brown-Chidsey & Steege, 2005). Systems working under the RTI model share core related beliefs including: all student learning is the responsibility of all in the school; differentiated service across students is acceptable; student performance is most influenced by the quality of interventions delivered and how well we deliver them, and educational decisions should be made based on student level of performance and learning rate over time (Batsche,et al., 2008).

In our fields of School Psychology and Educational Leadership, our experience has been that many students find PLCs and RTI conceptually compelling. Both have well-documented cases of success in raising student achievement while promoting cultures of success involving all students (R. Dufour, R. Dufour, Eaker & Karhanek, 2004; Jimerson, Burns & Vanderheyden, 2007). Once exposed to the theory and research, the students want to complete the triangle with practice. While there are a few districts far along in institutionalizing the use of PLCs and/or RTI, many others are in the early stages of a change process to RTI or use of PLCs or not yet engaged. We suggest that having the college faculty as a partner in the change process not only bolsters capacity for future placements, but also offers a vibrant opportunity for training leaders in education. A grant-supported partnership between the college, a local school district and community agency has allowed for collaboration in the change process of implementing a district-wide vision of RTI supported by PLCs. As such, students can be involved in working towards change as well as benefitting from the changed system as it evolves.

In Leading in a Culture of Change (2001), Fullan offers a framework for leading positive change. He posits that leaders need moral purpose, understanding of change, relationship building, knowledge creation and sharing, and coherence making, in order to lead complex change. He differentiates between information and knowledge. He suggests that information is that found on paper and in computers, while knowledge is in people. Much typical practice focuses on information gathering and information giving, while leading positive change focuses on knowledge generating and sharing within school community relationships. Our college-school district-community collaboration to support the development of PLCs and RTI fits well with this change model. The moral purpose of no child being left behind permeates both frameworks. Thus all involved are acting with an intention to make a positive difference. This partnership allows for an understanding of the change process that is essential for gaining perspective and respect for the challenges, pacing and adjustments inherent to change. Fostering strong and open relationships are central in PLCs, while the data-driven focus of both PLCs and RTI necessitates knowledge creation and sharing. Lastly, the act of coherence-making enables the articulation of the theories as they are actualized in the field. Indeed, being part of this collaborative process of system change provides a ready opportunity to lead while successfully bridging the theory-practice gap between the college classroom and the school hallway.


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Brown-Chidsey, R. & Steege,M. (2005). Response to Intervention: Principles and strategies for effective practice. NY : The Guilford Press.

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Dufour, R. (2005). What is a professional learning community? In R. Dufour, R. Eaker & R. Dufour (Eds.), On common ground: The power of professional learning communities (pp.31-44). Bloomington: Solution Tree.

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Hord, S. (1997), Professional Learning Communities: What are they and why are they important? Issues... About Change, 6 (1).pp.1-9.

Jimerson, S., Burns, M. & Vanderheyden, A. (2007). Handbook of Response to Intervention: The science and practice of assessment and intervention. NY: Springer.

Page last updated: Tuesday, September 27, 2011